“I wouldn't recommend the way our band came together to any other young woman,” chuckles Shirley Manson, as she and her bandmate Butch Vig sit with Yahoo Entertainment, reflecting on the unusual way that she came be the frontwoman of alt-rock supergroup Garbage a quarter-century ago. “You know, traveling from Scotland to Madison, with no money in my pocket, no way of really getting home, no way of touching base. I wouldn't recommend that for anyone. But I was very lucky that they weren't creeps. They could have easily been creeps, and at least one of them could have been a weirdo, but they were really great. And we still get along really well, for all our squabbles over the years.”
In 1993, Vig — hot off his success producing Nirvana’s Nevermind and the Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream — was starting a band with fellow studio wizards Steve Marker and Duke Erikson, when Marker saw the music video for “Suffocate” by Manson’s band at the time, Angelfish, on MTV’s 120 Minutes. Marker taped the program and showed the video to Vig and Erikson the next morning, and Vig recalls, “We were all very struck by it. I think the thing that really drew us into the song, and to Shirley, was she singing really low and understated at the time. A lot of the bands on 120 Minutes, or sort of the alternative music scene that was breaking, were full-on roar. We just thought that Shirley was kind of doing the opposite of what a lot of singers were doing at the time. And then luckily, our managers tracked her down.”
“I was touring with my band, which was starting to break up at the time, and they gave me a call and said, ‘What are you doing at the weekend? Do you want to come up and sing a track or two with us?’ I was like, ‘Yeah OK,’” Manson recalls. What ensued was a bizarre blind-date audition in Wisconsin, where Garbage were based. “So on my day off, I traveled up to Madison. They picked me up and we went to Steve's house, and they set me up on a mic at the top of the stairs.”
Manson actually auditioned in a laundry room (“I just assumed it was a ‘man cave,’” she shrugs), and she confesses that the experience was a total disaster. “They just said, ‘OK, we're going to play some music and you're going to just come see what you come up with, see what comes up off the top of your head.’ And I had never done any writing before in my life up to this point, but I had lied to them, saying yes I was a writer, because I thought if I was honest and said I didn't write, I wouldn't get a chance of auditioning. .. I think they were like, ‘Oh my God, who's this loser?’ And I went home, and their management called me up the next day and said, ‘I hear the audition didn't go so well yesterday.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, it was terrible. But I feel like maybe if we had another go, it might go better.’” Thankfully, Manson’s future bandmates felt the same way.
And so, with Angelfish on the outs, Manson took a major risk by relocating to the Madison to join a new band and stay in a spooky old hotel, while she and her bandmates — who were still barely more than strangers at this point — got to work on what would be their self-titled debut album, which eventually came out on Aug. 15, 1995. Vig, Marker, and Erikson were well aware that Manson was in a vulnerable position. “We kind of looked out for her,” says Vig. “I think we just felt like, ‘We’ve got to make sure she doesn't go crazy, being stuck at night in the hotel here in the dead of winter when it's 20 below zero. Because especially that hotel, it did take on a bit of a Shining quality. I think [Manson was] the only person living in this particular wing of the hotel. So it was a little bit creepy there too.”
Manson laughingly remembers listening to the ice outside her hotel room window “split and moan” late at night, while she yanked the covers over her head in terror. “A lot of my friends now will present postcards that I sent to them and go, ‘You need to read that.’ And it will be a postcard like, ‘Dear such-and-such. I'm stuck here and still going out in my mind. I don't even know if this music is any good, blah, blah, blah.’ And they think it's really hilarious, you know! But I think in all great endeavors in your life, if you're not second-guessing yourself, you're a fool. I mean, you have to question yourself all the time, I think.”
Manson wasn’t the only one questioning herself at the time, and she wasn’t the only one with a lot to lose. “I also felt immense pressure,” says Vig. “A lot of people started telling me, ‘Man, you made a big mistake doing a record with a band. You just became a very successful producer. If the record flops, it could be the end of your career!’” And when Vig and company opted to experiment with electronica instead of just the expected guitar-based grunge, there was indeed a fan backlash at first.
“I think our debut album really took a lot of people by surprise, because it did not sound like records that I produced before that a lot of people assumed it was going to sound like — the Pumpkins or Nirvana or whatever, very grungy, guitar-based arrangements,” Vig explains. “We started bringing in electronics and beats and film-score moments and pop melodies and weird loops and samples — and sometimes all in the same song, we would mix them all together!”
When advance copies of Garbage were sent to the music media, at first no information regarding the band members was included in the press packets. “I didn't want people's expectations to get involved with this because of my success with the bands I produced; I really felt like Garbage sounded completely different than my previous work and that the four of us had become a really tight unit,” explains Vig. “And really, we started co-producing and co-writing everything together from day one. I just didn't want to get singled out as the ‘leader’ of the band, or that it was my pet project. And so we kept [our résumés] pretty under the radar for quite a while.”
Eventually, all these risks paid off. Garbage sold 4 million copies worldwide, yielded several smash alternative radio singles (including “Only Happy When It Rains,” “Queer,” “Stupid Girl,” “Milk,” and the Romeo + Juliet soundtrack song “#1 Crush”), and set down the blueprint for a highly influential signature sound that fused grunge and techno in a bold new way. “I remember the purists being a little affronted by this band that had heavy guitars, but also infusing it with some hip-hop and a lot of samples,” says Vig. “And then over the next couple of years, that just became par for course, and everybody was doing it.”
“We never really fitted into any scene,” says Manson. “When we came out, we weren't part of the alternative scene; we were considered too poppy. And we didn't fit into the pop scene; we were considered too rock. We didn't fit into the rock scene, because we used synths and electronica. And so on and so forth. So musically, we've always very much been out on a limb. And as our career has gone on, I'm really grateful for that — that we haven't fitted in anywhere, and that there is no other band out there, really, that sounds like us. That’s really quite unusual, I think. So I guess, yeah, it's good to be a weirdo.”
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